Humans are not the only ones susceptible to the psychedelic chemicals found in magic mushrooms. “Zombie cicadas” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – have returned to West Virginia to infect their friends, and now researchers have a better understanding of how it happens.
Researchers from West Virginia University recently looked back at these bizarre creatures, which are infected with a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the fungus manipulates the insects to unknowingly infect other cicadas and quickly transmits the disease to create a kind of zombie army.
When a male cicada is infected with Massospora, researchers found that it wings its wings like a female, a known mating call. This behavior attracts healthy male cicadas, which facilitates the spread of the fungus, which contains chemicals including psilocybin, which are found in hallucinogenic fungi.
Just how the disease manipulates its host and spreads is just the latest discovery after decades of research on Massospora. The results show the parasite functions in part as a sexual transmission.
“Essentially, cicadas attract others because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” co-author Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, said in a press release this week. “The bioactive compounds can manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen longer.”
The team researched infected cicadas that returned to southeastern West Virginia earlier this year. While periodic cicadas only come out every 13 or 17 years, time is distorted in different places, making it easier for researchers to study their behavior.
Researchers described the horrific details of the fungus’ process as a “disturbing display of B-horror movie conditions.” The spores eat away at the genitals, abdomen and abdomen until they finally fall off and replace them with fungal spores – a brutal process for the insects, which only spent more than a decade underground.
The cicadas begin to decay, but rather than die immediately, they fly around and infect others. Due to the mind’s ability to control the infection, the insects seem to behave as if nothing is wrong.
Lovett described the process as wearing “away like an eraser on a pencil.” The fungi resemble rabies – both “invoke live insects to make their bid,” researchers said – in a process called active host transmission, which is a form of “biological puppet.”
“Because we are also animals like insects, we think we have full control over our decisions and we take our free will for granted,” Lovett said. “But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it is very clear that the pathogen pulls the behavioral levers on the cicada to get it to do things that are not in the interest of the cicada but are very much in the interest of the pathogen.”
Lovett and his co-author, Matthew Kasson, associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered the psychoactive compounds in cicadas infected with Massospora last year. But until now, it remained unclear how infection occurs.
Scientists are not safe when they encounter the fungi in their life cycle. It is possible that cicadas may encounter Massospora before they grew up from the ground after 17 years to blend into adults, or on their way underground, before feeding on roots for 17 years.
“The fungus can more or less wait in its host for the next 17 years until something awakens it, perhaps a hormone size, where it may lie dormant and asymptomatic in its cicada value,” said Kasson.
But there is no reason to worry about being infected by zombies. Unlikeor These zombie cicadas are generally harmless to humans, researchers said.
“They are very docile,” Lovett said. “You can go all the way to one, pick it up to see if it has the fungus (a white to yellowish plug on the back) and put it down again. They are not a big pest in any way. They are just a really interesting odd insect that has developed a bizarre lifestyle. ”
Due to their relatively slow reproduction rate, the fungus does not pose a major threat to the cicada population as a whole. But researchers are still hoping to discover how the pathogen evolved and how it can evolve to further terrorize other insect species.